Stack of BooksLibraryThing is a great new app that let you catalog you’re books. It’s in early beta and although it needs a lot of feature as far as search, design, and usability it’s a stellar start to what could be the next great website. It’s so easy to bash sites for what they don’t have and so I’m gonna make an extra effort to highlight why it’s so great.

First, as a designer and developer, I was glowing when I saw the “One-step sign up / sign in”. This is such a usable sign up form that it almost made me cry. Simplicity at it’s best. After you sign in you can go to the Add Books tab and start searching for books. Search results are listed in a side iframe which allows for dynamic loading of results. Wonderful use of AJAX as if you are unhappy with your search you can edit what is already in the search box. Clicking any link will add the book to your library and if you make a mistake you can just X it out directly after you add it. It’s some nice work of javascript. Back on the Catalog page you can view all your books. On the right you can edit the book and add tags (yes tags!) and comments as well as view the Library of Congress Card Data. All the text is searchable through a little javascript find link on the top right. Other features include exporting a CSV format which works with excel and (still being worked on) importing your library from Delicious Library. The free account only lest you index up to 200 books. The best part is that the pro account is a one time fee of $10, which if you have more then 200 books is a very worth while investment.

Okay, now for the downside. While it’s a wonderful site and I love it to death it still has some growing pains it needs to get through before it comes out of beta. One immediate downside is that you can not browse for books. This will hopefully be fixed in the future as for some searches like “Harry Potter” where hundreds of books are listed it’s hard to find the six published books you are looking for. On top of this when you do search for “Harry Potter” you can only view the first 10 or so entries. It shows how many entries are not displayed but gives no option of viewing them. Currently the search function is very particular and searches such as “harry potter and the azkaban” for the “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” returns no results while google doesn’t even blink. A hack (or feature) around this is to separate items with a comma. While “harry potter and the, azkaban” does result in a search for “harry potter and the” and separately “azkaban” it still returns results that are too general to find the book you are looking for. If you do find multiple books you own in one search it’s difficult to add them all with out constant use of the back button. Selection of a book refreshes the page and clears the search bar forcing you to retype your search. The hack around this is to (in FireFox) middle mouse click and open each book in a new tab for multiple selection. This does not seem much easier then using the back button but either way there should be a way for javascript to better handle it.

In the Catalog page there are also a number of usability issues. Top left is a Display list that shows what appears to be the multiple pages your library spans. In fact this a list to change how the books are displayed. In preferences you can edit what fields of information are shown and have multiple presets. This makes changing how you browse the books and is very useful. It’s not clear at all that the Display list has anything to do with the preferences until you mess around with it for a few minutes. One reason it is not clear is also because there is no way to jump to a page of your library. You can only display up to 50 books at a time and you only have the option of next or previous pages. The creator of the site, Tim Spalding, currently has over 400 books and how he pages to the end is beyond me. Not to mention that this sparse navigation is not repeated on the bottom of the page causing even more unneeded effort to get through your massive library.

Another short coming is the inability to add other user’s books to your own collection. How easy it would be to build up your library by finding a user with similar taste and just click all the books that you also own. With a little javascript it could make short work of quickly indexing your library. In this way the site is very focused on what you own and not on looking at what other people own. This is in fact slightly counter intuitive to the social aspect of the site. While books link to amazon (where Tim surly hope to get some amazon affiliate love) there is no current benefit to searching others libraries. You can’t add book to your own list with out searching for them. What the site really needs is a wish list of books. This would get people in the buying mind set and in fact might generate more money for the site, possibly even removing the need for the pro account. Other wise it makes little sense to click the books in your library that you own to buy them again from amazon.

Wow this is really long. While I have been rather harsh to LibraryThing only my love for it could develop this much passion (which is the new way to market of course). When it’s all said and done the site is in beta and is being actively developed. While it is interesting that some elements are done beautifully and some are badly designed or even missing there is every reason to believe that they will be addressed and quickly.

Visit my Library at STHayden!

Update: (11-01-05) Most of the problems listed above have since been fixed.

LibraryThing, library, catalog, ajax, Tim Spalding, Delicious Library, tagging